The Police and the Mentally Ill

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Eugene O'Donnell, professor of law and police science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and former police officer, and Daily News columnist Errol Louis and Dr. Pamela Straker, president and CEO of Brooklyn CareWorks, discuss the interaction of the police with the mentally ill, in wake of the recent fatal police shooting in Bed-Stuy.


Errol Louis, Eugene O'Donnell and Pamela Straker

Comments [28]

Cory from New York

I can't believe what I'm hearing here.

Cops have a difficult job, its true, but that guy is dead. Imagine if you're that mom. The mom called the cops after the mental health workers came and left. She probably thought that the cops also knew of his mental health status.

Regardless of that--the cops have bulletproof jackets, and tactics to seize and disarm, and they could have used many things to take him down. For one, they could have tazed him. They could have used a net to immobilize him. They could have talked him down. The police have to try to talk him down at least. They have to use de-escalation techniques.

I worked in a psych hospital where there were people who were much stronger and more violent, and we did takedowns in the space of a fraction of a second whenever something like that happens--if they talk about using a gun or don't do something like put up their hands, they get restrained. I don't understand why they couldn't use such a restraint or taze him...

There is obviously a lack of knowledge of psychiatric disorders in the NYPD.

Nov. 16 2007 12:29 AM
Philip B Kirschner from NAMI-NYS board of Directors

As a patient of mental health services, i know for a fact that the problem with the NYPD does not lie with the officers, but with lack of training and a poor dispatch system that is an excuse. If 500 police departments nationally have reduced injuries, deaths and ultimately incarcaerations of persons like myself, than why is the culture of the NYPD releuctant to do anything to change it? When 911 is called, questions should be asked. This guy wanted to commit suicide by cop, and he got what he wanted. Also the mobile crises team was negligent.

Nov. 15 2007 03:06 PM

"Nearly 40 percent of low-income blacks say they have nothing in common with middle-income and poor blacks."

Darren, I guess your NPR reference didn't come from this NPR article posted today: "Income Gap Between Blacks, Whites Expands."

This is clearly about race. All the cognitive dissonance in the world can't conceal it.

I'm reminded of something Dr. Michael Eric Dyson said: "People say, ‘Well, it’s not about race, it’s about class.’ What you talking about? Race often is the language class speaks. Race makes class hurt more."


Nov. 14 2007 04:17 PM
francyne from NYC

A lack of understanding? I've lived in this city most of my adult life and know that there is criminal element that preys on us, again all of us: Asian, black, Latino, white

The man who was shot by the police had a criminal record. He was not behaving as told by the officers.

Again, I ask "Are we on favor of the police or of the offenders?

I'm on favor of the police and want the offenders locked op or shot. No questions asked.

Francyne Pelchar

Nov. 14 2007 03:48 PM
michael from harlem

hey darren, don't worry i'm not going to sink so low as to kill someone, hell, i can't even spellor type, forgive me

Nov. 14 2007 03:05 PM
michael from harlem

no, it's not merely about race. rich or poor any black man knows that the police will pull you over or shoot you down for being black. if you're well off, they might be less eager but often they act without discovering your class and sometimes learning you are " superior " to them, that alone is enough to make someone want to " bring you down a peg or two "

richard parson's explained it best when he told me how ' every day someone challenges wether i know what i'm saying----just because i'm black. why is there such reluctance to admit the plain sad unremitting truth. a few years ago i told myself, ' that for someone like me who has written books, educated at columbia, in a place like new york, that race mattered so little as not to matter.' but i was wrong in every way. i wanted to belive it because the truth after so much effort, after all these years, since the deaths of martin, malcolm, bobby and jesus---it's to bleakly depressing----but it's real

Nov. 14 2007 02:59 PM
Darren from Park Slope

michael -

congrats for not having killed anyone - do you want a good citizen prize?
did you listen to NPR this morning???
Poll: Education, Income Segregates Blacks

Nearly 40 percent of low-income blacks say they have nothing in common with middle-income and poor blacks.

so stop race-baiting & start talking class-war - "it's about class, stupid" - isn't it?

Nov. 14 2007 01:54 PM
michael from harlem

racism is so systemic, it doesn't matter if the officer is black or white. in america black life has little value: it's out of this real fact that enduring poverty, dispreportionate crime, dispreportionate inprisonment, well beyond the rate of crimes committed, income disparity, et al flows. please darren, explain how over the last 25 years all but one of the unarmed youth slain by the police in new york was black? i might be racist as you say, only so far i haven't killed anyone.

Nov. 14 2007 12:22 PM
Felix from Lubbock Tx

My goodness Francyne, a bit bitter it would seem. Taking such a hard line in such a tragic siguation shows lack of understanding among other things.

Nov. 14 2007 12:16 PM
Darren from Park Slope

I guess if the police officer was black than there
wouldnt be such "outrage"?

What are the statistics on black on black deaths

Nov. 14 2007 11:53 AM
Felix from Lubbock Tx

Race should not be in issue in cases like this but unfortunalely it is. Is it that young black men are as likely to shoot as young white men? (Check the statistics) I am sure that you will find that race has little to do with this subject. Unfortunate as it is society has created stereotypes, and young black men have created an image that would lead the likelyhood of one race to be subjected to being shot in this situation.

Nov. 14 2007 11:47 AM
Felix from Lubbock Tx

My father was a cop for 20 years. I would stay awake at night just to here him tell my mom what events had transpired that night. One night in particular I heard a shake in his voice that I had never heard before. He said "I almost shot a man armed with a pipe tonight." Apperantly the man was brandishing a pipe to resemble a gun. My father did not shoot the man, but the distress that it put him through made me realize the amount of pressure that police men and women are under..

Nov. 14 2007 11:33 AM
Will from Manhattan

I agree with Leo (in the fact that as a society we are afraid of young black men) and am sympathetic to the police officer. I highly doubt that he shot out of vengeance (and yes, there should be more training for dealing with the mentally ill.) BUT…the fact that it’s not only ‘white cops’ that share this fear leads me to think it’s legitimate. You are instantly labeled a racist if you suggest that gun and gang violence persist in one community over another. (yes, I know there’s fundamental reasons why this has happened) but a cop still has a right to protect himself. That being said, this is not even a race issue…the fact is that someone they were told (by the mother) had a gun and came at the police.

Nov. 14 2007 11:30 AM
Darren from Park Slope

Michael's racist comment "just once could not the victim be white, if only in order to reinforce the lodgic of statistical probability" is appalling.

Race-baiting this case is exploitive and demeaning to blacks, whites and everyone else.

So if the gun was real and the mental health was shot dead - Michael would be complaining that the police would've prevented the violence if the it was a white neighborhood....

Racist hypocrisy among some commenters is appalling...

Nov. 14 2007 11:28 AM
Francyne Pelchar from NYC

The life of a police officer, a functioning and productive member of society, against that of some whack case? The police protect us, all of us Asian, black, Latino, and white. They raise families on low salaries for the dangers endured. The crazies defecate on our streets, stink up the subways, panhandle, and get violent as did the last one who got blown away.
At least the police officer is alive to go home to his/her family. The nutcase is dead, and we're all better off.

If the mother of said nutcase didn't want someone to intervene in the situation, then, hey, she just should not have called 911, dealt with it herself and maybe she'd be the one who was dead.

Nov. 14 2007 11:07 AM
Amy from Manhattan

What can be done for mentally ill people to prevent their situation from ever getting to this point in the first place? To extend the example of someone having a heart attack, if the physical health care system is functioning properly, it should intervene on an ongoing basis when a patient has heart disease to keep them from having the heart attack & needing emergency care in the first place. And if the mental health care system is functioning properly, it should intervene on an ongoing basis when a patient has a mental illness to keep them from having a mental health crisis & needing emergency intervention. It might not prevent every crisis, but it could probably prevent many of them. I'm sure mental health professionals try to do this, but too often, mental health isn't thought of (especially politically) in the same terms as physical health, & I'd guess economic & racial disparities in access to care are even worse for mental than for physical health care.

Sorry I couldn't get this posted while the segment was still on--I would've liked the guests to address this aspect of the issue. Maybe on a future show?

Nov. 14 2007 10:54 AM
michael from harlem

in america, in new york, whites outnumber blacks by a large number. but, yet again it's a black youth who has perished in a hail of police bullets. are their no mentally disturbed white youth ? just once could not the victim be white, if only in order to reinforce the lodgic of statistical probability ?

Nov. 14 2007 10:50 AM

It's a tough call I guess. I'm reminded of the shooting death of Eleanor Bumpers in 1984. The police assumed she was mentally ill. When housing police arrived on the scene she was naked and hysterical. She was also holding a knife. But, I'm not sure if the office who killed her feared that a 300 lb senior citizen would do him physical harm or if he acted on impulse.

What I don't understand about the police shootings of victims like Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell and now Khiel Coppin is the issue of contagious shooting. Why are multiple rounds of gunfire necessary to kill?

Nov. 14 2007 10:43 AM
Linda from Queens


I understand your point, but if you listen to the recording of the call the mother made to 911, in the background the son says he has a gun. The mother confirms that's what he said. This fact has to be dealt with first, before any mental health worker can be a part of the scenario. Mental health workers are not armed, and are not in a position of risking their lives in order to peacefully disarm someone. Only the police are equipped to do that. Yes, a mental health worker could have been on the scene, but he/she would not have been able to step in until the police could assure their physical safety.

Nov. 14 2007 10:37 AM
hjs from 11211

cops should always have the right to defend themselves!

Nov. 14 2007 10:34 AM
Paul from Brooklyn

As per your request, the Police State documentary links: (keep in mind these were made of a 10 year period and playback & production quality varies. The DVD's can be purchased at

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

Nov. 14 2007 10:33 AM
Paulo from Paterson, New Jersey

Linda, I never said that the counselor should be alone. Indeed, I specifically said the police should be involved when there's a report of a gun or deadly weapon. And in fact they had called for counselors. But they should've been first responders WITH the police.

Nov. 14 2007 10:26 AM
Leo in NYC from NYC

I am very sympathetic to the police in this situation,a and obviously there are many details that have to be taken into account. But there is also the context of Diallo and Bell and others. The fact is that these shooting don't seem to happen to white people. This isn't because the police are evil -- it's because they're scared of young black men. Like most of the rest of society. The difference is that they carry guns. This simple, sad fact cannot be left out of the discussion of this tragedy.

Nov. 14 2007 10:26 AM
Fiona McLean from Brooklyn

Having worked for two organisations that independently investigate police fatalities (IPCC in the UK and PIC in Australia) is amazing that such a significant police force (NYC) does NOT have an independent organisation oversighting and investigating such situations. The notion of moving away from finding someone to blame is interesting, someone's life has been taken, the police have an incredibly privledged position in our society - where is the accountability for this shooting??? What changes will come as a result in police procedures?? Who will ensure that recommendations etc for policy changes/training etc are implemented??

Nov. 14 2007 10:25 AM

Please find it & post the link. I get too much on googling to figure out which one you're talking about.

Nov. 14 2007 10:17 AM
Paul from Brooklyn

If you are interested in seeing a documentary on the escalation of violent law enforcment, I suggest going to google video and searching for the "Police State" documentary. You can read a thousand books on the topic, it will pale in comparison to seeing it for yourself.

Nov. 14 2007 10:12 AM
Linda from Queens

How much can a counselor diffuse the situation if the person is already claiming he has a gun? Apparently his mother called 911, which is often what family members do when there is a mentally ill person raging. Would you have wanted an unarmed counselor or even an EMT to have to have handled a situation that is potentially deadly to them? I think if there is even the slightest hint of physical danger, the police are the appropriate people to respond. Yes, this is terribly tragic, maybe the police overreacted, but it doesn't seem like it was brutality or heartless on the part of the police.

We're all aware that the family will likely sue the NYPD, the city, and possibly other city services that did NOT respond. The award the jury will give to the mother may be somewhat reduced by the judge when he/she looks at the circumstances, but in the end she'll receive a tidy sum and the NYPD will not have much reason to change their current response policy for these situations.

Nov. 14 2007 10:05 AM
Paulo from Paterson, New Jersey

This issue was discussed several months ago on this show if I recall. I don't know if this guest was the same guest from that discussion, but I remember that the point being made was that cops are unfairly being forced into the role of psychiatrists along with all the other things they have to be, and that leads to problems because cops are not trained for that at all.

I think this is a good point. The cops are called for any and all crises regardless of whether they should really be handling it, and this can lead to tragedy as in this case. I mean, you have to have cops there if there's reports of a gun, but when you know you're dealing with a person who is not in a right state of mind (either from temporary or permanent issues), a counselor should be on the scene. They could potentially defuse the situation before it ever gets this far.

Nov. 14 2007 09:12 AM

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